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Voice Search: New Sounds in the City

Tokyo: manga

Want to know what you sound like to others? Cup your hand around your ear and speak. To what extent does knowing what you sound like change what you decide to say?

Been playing around with the new glimpse-the-future Google voice search application for the iPhone, that copes with my Caucasian-male-non-Californian voice with an unnerving mixture of precision and humour. Yeah, voice search has been around for a while – just not quite so accessible.

How do the things that people search for using voice differ from those that are typed in – not only in terms of complexity but in terms of content? It’s one thing to type “nearest hostess bar European ending”, “full back waxing discount voucher” or “cash in a hurry” but another to say it out loud. You might think that mainstream voice search will be restricted to places where you have a degree of privacy, like say a car or home – but there are a number of reasons why that’s not going to be the case: the first is that some of the world’s 800+million illiterate people voice is the enabler – it opens up a new window to the world; for some voice will be the dominant and preferred way of searching in a particular context and this preferred way will ‘leak” into other contexts. There is a cognitive cost to switching modalities e.g. typing to mouse, touch to voice – which might be summed up as “it feels right” even if socially it’s not the kind of behaviour you like to see in other people or expect from yourself. But the main reason why you’re going to see voice search finding it’s way into the background noise on our streets, playgrounds, cafes and waiting rooms is that it ushers in a whole new way of projecting to people in proximity our aspirations and intent whether it’s “Porsche car rental LAX”, “yoga retreat in Hokkaido” or “Nike Fubars”.

Tokyo: manga

What happens to the recorded search terms? A massive dataset will be needed to improve the service, and will Google (now or in the future) forgo the advertising opportunities that will come from archiving the oral you? There are many ways for those recordings to make their way into the public domain: through surreptitious 3rd party applications on your device; recording the overheard; or simply on the (personal) assumption that everything that passes through the network is monitored by something or someone – the only question is whom, and their intent now and in the future.

In our orally enriched future perfect what new services does a lifetimes worth of voice searches enable? Well for one, that phone call you just had informing you of a new bar opening around the corner sounded just like your ex-girlfriend right? Uncanny that. What message would be best delivered by what voices from your past? From our past?

Can you hear me now? Do you have a choice?


Manga themed photos? There are taboos associated with a suited salarimen reading manga on the train, but it is far less of a problem when the manga is consumed on the mobile phone. For every medium, different levels of public display.